Things to be proud of

August 19, 2014

Lots of news I can use on today’s Writer’s Almanac.

First, fun facts for film majors like Older Daughter: it’s the anniversary of the epochal day in 1829 when Louis Daguerre announced the invention of his photographic prototype, the daguerrotype. “People were afraid at first to look for any length of time at the pictures he produced. They were embarrassed by the clarity of these figures and believed that the little, tiny faces of the people in the pictures could see out at them, so amazing did the unaccustomed detail and the unaccustomed truth to nature of the first daguerreotypes appear to everyone.” Plato warned us about mistaking representations for reality. But pictures are revelatory, and thanks to Louis it’s possible today to major in them.

And, it’s the birthday of Philo T. Farnsworth. Television can be a lot like Plato’s cave, of course, but at its best it can also shine a light.

Funnest fact of all, today: it’s the birthday of The Great Bird of the Galaxy, Gene Roddenberry, who gave us Kirk and Spock and Sulu et al. 

Star Trek was the first sci-fi series to depict a generally peaceful future, and that came from Roddenberry’s fundamental optimism about the human race. “It speaks to some basic human needs,” he said in 1991, “that there is a tomorrow — it’s not all going to be over in a big flash and a bomb, that the human race is improving, that we have things to be proud of as humans. No, ancient astronauts did not build the pyramids — human beings built them because they’re clever and they work hard. And Star Trek is about those things.”

Gene went out with style, aboard the space shuttle Columbia in ’92. NASA then honored him for “distinguished service to the Nation and the human race in presenting the exploration of space as an exciting frontier and a hope for the future.” It’s too easy to give up on that, in these days of destruction. 

But we must keep reminding ourselves: Ferguson, MO.,  near the University of Missouri-St. Louis where I first matriculated back when Gene was still dreaming up strange new worlds and a hopeful human future, is still just a small corner of the galaxy.

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A new leaf

August 18, 2014

It’s Older Daughter’s first day of class at her new school, a vicarious Opening Day for me. (My own is just a week away now.) Day 1, a new beginning, a fresh start, a clean slate, a tabula rasa, a rising sun. September in August.

“[T]hat old September feeling, left over from school days, of summer passing, vacation nearly done, obligations gathering, books and football in the air … Another fall, another turned page: there was something of jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as if last year’s mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.” Wallace Stegner

“Football in the air” doesn’t resonate for me as it does for most, this time of year. But I suspended my Holy Crusade against the game Malcolm Gladwell likens to a dogfight long enough to enjoy the spirited post-New Student Convocation pep rally in the Heartland the other afternoon. Go Dawgs. But, behave yourselves off the field and remember that a student-athlete is a student first.

The rally was only overtly and ritually and superficially about the game. What matters is the camaraderie, the sense of a shared collaborative project, a mutually supportive singular identity, a common cause. It’s jarring to begin all over again, in a new place. But it’ll be more than comforting to come back to that place again and again, in years to come, with the old slate wiped clean. 

That’s precisely what I love so much about my own daily pre-dawn ritual, this game I play every morning. I’m not here to beat anyone, though. I’m just trying to feel the pep and channel it, like old Arnold Bennett who said “you can turn over a new leaf every hour if you choose.” Every dawn seems the steadier pace, for me.

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“There’s a place…

August 14, 2014

where lives are meant to be lived…” And it’s in the middle of midwestern coal country. Who knew?

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An extraordinary legacy

August 12, 2014

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old time is still a flying, and this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.” 

I didn’t know Robin Williams, nor apparently did he know himself well enough when he said bad times always awaken us to “the stuff you weren’t paying attention to.” But I know how inspired I was, first time I saw him in this role. Extraordinary.

We are food for worms lads. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die. Now I would like you to step forward over here and peruse some of the faces from the past. You’ve walked past them many times. I don’t think you’ve really looked at them. They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see gentlmen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Hear it? Carpe. Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary. Dead Poets Society

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August 11, 2014

Older Daughter and I saw “Boyhood” last night at the Belcourt. At last, a film for grownups. It’s a remarkable meditation on the passage of time, the experience of growing up, searching for the point of things, celebrating milestones, settling sometimes for less than life might have been expected to offer, and through it all learning. It was filmed over a dozen years of the actors’ actual lives, thus achieving a startling, mesmerizing realism. 2’45” shot by in a flash. Despite a series of depressing, distressing male figures in the protagonist Mason’s life, our ultimate takeaway as he commences college is affirming and uplifting.

So many of the men in “Boyhood” seem like losers, or bullies, or both, minds and mouths locked tight with disapproval and denial, and the challenge for Mason—and, you feel, for any kid—is not just to survive the squalls of youth but somehow to grow from boy to man without suffering a death of the spirit. Anthony Lane

Do we live and learn, or is the living hard enough on its own? Pals, teachers, sour stepdads, and early girlfriends come and go, caught up, like Mason, in time’s current. What a relief to find him emerging intact at the end, with happiness still in reach. New Yorker 

My experience of time at Saturday’s commencement at my school was a bit more sluggish, and my colleague’s address to the graduates about it being time to forget about the “very large number” of their graduating peers and get on with focusing on themselves, “you, the one,” struck me as sounding a note of individualist exclusion that really needs and deserves no reinenforcement from the academy. But, I emerged from it too with my hopefulness intact and my relief palpable.

And happiness was still in reach. Another colleague, on our way out of the Murphy Center – not the one who commented on the halloweenish quality of our caps and gowns – exclaimed, “they were so happy!”

And to the colleague on my left conspicuously working a crossword and fiddling with his phone all through the ceremonial roll-call and conferral of degrees: consider yourself peer-reviewed as a reprobate and an embarrassment to our profession. You might as well have stayed home and thrown your own party. You’re evidently not grown up enough to wear those duds and sit in that seat to celebrate our students’ transition from girl- and boyhood.

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Properly back

August 6, 2014

The Southwest flight back from our island getaway was days ago, but only this morning do I find myself compelled by clock and calendar to snap back to what is known by the impoverished collective imagination as Reality.

The reality is: Younger Daughter begins her first day of the Fall (!) semester at her new school in about an hour. She got her driver’s permit earlier this summer, so she’ll be driving me for a change. But I’m going.

So it’s up again, old heart, an hour before dawn. This is good! As she said, almost running me over on my way to the coffeepot: “I’m up at 5:04! This is going to take a lot of getting used to!!”

It is, but we’ll adapt. Just allow me to indulge one last H.G. Wells-inspired summer’s moment at seaside, where he said the trick is not to think. I’d just about mastered that trick.But HGW also said…

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“It cannot be always seaside, even as it cannot be always May, and through the gaps thought creeps in.” 

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Postcard from Carolina

July 23, 2014

“Sometimes on this voyage through life we need to sit on the deck and regard the waves.” Roger Ebert

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Environmental ethics

July 15, 2014

I’ve been postponing a final decision on which of innumerable possible texts would most salubriously complement the two I’d already selected for my impending Fall course on environmental ethics and sustainability.

I’d already picked Bill McKibben’s Oil and Honey because it looks back at the recent history of environmental activism and forward to the more locally-and-globally sustainable patterns of living such activism was always supposed to enable.

And I’d picked Ed Wilson’s The Creation because we can’t reasonably hope to sustain life in a climate of polarized hostility over matters extraneous to our shared interest in survival. Environmental sustainability must transcend ideology and religion (and irreligion).

So yesterday I finally settled on Robin Attfield’s freshly-revised and updated text. There’s plenty here about sustainability and our responsibility to the future of life. There’s defense of “biocentric consequentialism.” There’s an attempt to “foster the kind of campaigning” on behalf of the environment that moves us beyond the academic ivory tower and into the streets with McKibben and friends. There’s a generous and helpful bibliography, including the web. There’s “music for environmental ethicists.” And there’s the transatlantic perspective provided by Attfield’s residence at Cardiff University.

But if I’m being entirely honest, one compelling reason for my selection of this text is the walkers on the cover.  That’s the picture of sustainability.

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Life itself

July 14, 2014

Saw and loved Life Itself Saturday night, introducing Older Daughter to someone she needs to know as she prepares to head up to Illinois and commence her own film studies.

I used to watch Siskel and Ebert every Sunday night on PBS in St. Louis in the late ’70s, right before Monty Python. They had as much influence on my education as anyone, and Ebert continues to educate me. He was a philosopher of happiness, and a humanist. (Siskel was good too, a philosophy major we learn.)

“A machine for generating empathy” was Roger’s idea of what a movie could be. Hard not to empathize with him, not to marvel at the astounding and tenacious love of life that had him clinging to it with thumbs up long after most of us would have folded. Letting us see him struggle, very publicly, with a devastating cancer. And finally, acknowledging death’s inevitability and accepting its necessity. Gently letting go.

What a beautiful spirit he achieved, this exceptionally talented man who in rotund self-indulgent health had been (like many of us) “nice, but not that nice.” The film and the memoir it’s based on make clear that he didn’t do it alone.

Another inspiring life. Can’t collect too many of them.

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John Seigenthaler, 1927-2014

July 12, 2014

Nashville, journalism, and friends of justice & freedom & integrity & decency & literacy everywhere lost a great man yesterday. So glad I took the time two months ago to write to him, after watching the Shelby Street pedestrian bridge get rechristened in his name.

…I find myself moved to add my thanks for all you’ve done for so long, for individuals, for your community and nation, for the cause of human freedom and dignity, and for social progress and hope. 

And, thanks again for visiting my ethics & computer ethics classes at Vanderbilt in ’06. The door to my MTSU classes is always open to you… Be well.

He’ll not be passing through that door again in the flesh, but his tireless energy in service to our species will continue to inspire me every time I do.

Worth another look:

Saturday, May 3, 2014

A bridge to freedom

Local icon and national (as well as personal) hero John Seigenthaler got a fitting and perfectly-symbolic tribute this week: Nashville’s Shelby Street pedestrian bridge was renamed and dedicated to honor the man who’s done so much for so long for human and civil rights, and for freedom. The First Amendment Center which he founded is a beacon of advocacy and hope, and now it has new company as a civic monument to its founder.

The mayor’s right, he’s always been a man to extend a saving hand and a man to say Yes. That’s what he said when I invited him to speak to my Vanderbilt ethics and computer ethics classes several years ago. I’ll never cross that bridge again without grateful appreciation.



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